Monday, August 05, 2013


A sort of trivial thought hit me today, but worth thinking about a little more, maybe. George Orwell clearly worried publicly about what Tocqueville called "the destiny of mankind". He also, I think, had some hope. 1984 was meant as a piece of rhetoric, not prophecy. He was trying to motivate people to work for a better world. He was a progressive.

So here's the thought. What did progressives hope for in 1948? If we described to them the world in which we live, would they think it dystopian (a nightmare)? Utopian (a mere dream)? Or would they think it's sort of just about what you might hope for, back in 1948.

Of course, a lot would depend on where this progressive was living, I imagine. Much of Europe has been rebuilt and "progressed" in a perhaps impressive way since 1948. But the promise of American post-war prosperity has, just as probably, been a bit disappointing. (Norman Mailer's hopes and fears in 1948, when he had just published The Naked and Dead) might be a good indicator. He had much to say about post-9/11 America, not much of which was flattering.)

Reading Richard Rorty, this afternoon, on "liberal hope" got me thinking about this. He quotes a passage from Nabokov's The Gift, in which a utopia "without equality and without authorities" is (vainly, indifferently) imagined. On that standard, Tocqueville's analysis of American democracy, and his worries about the sort of despotism that "the principle of equality" would bring, precisely because there would still be authority, was dystopian from the start. That is, what Tocqueville was describing was not something that could be perverted in dystopian directions, but which was dystopian in its core assumptions.


Andrew Shields said...

I came across a good line recently:

If you are under 60, you were not promised flying cars. You were promised a cyberpunk dystopia, and that's what you've got.

Andrew Shields said...

‘A Vision’ – Simon Armitage

The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town
on public display in the Civic Hall.
The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,

blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.

And people like us at the bottle-bank
next to the cycle-path, or dog-walking
over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass,
or motoring home in electric cars,

model drivers. Or after the late show —
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects — a true, legible script.

I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.

Andrew Shields said...

Getting carried away now:

There's also Karl Valentin: "Die Zukunft war früher auch besser."

Thomas said...

"And people like us at the bottle-bank
next to the cycle-path, or dog-walking
over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass,
or motoring home in electric cars,"

Whenever I take this issue up, this image comes to mind. For me, it was a drawing in a book about the future that I read in the fifth grade. The people were smiling and happy, wearing the sort of clothes that people jog in these days. The sky was blue and clear. It was printed on the same page as a picture of an alternate future, where the sky is brown with polution, people wearing gasmasks, etc.

The thing about the cyberpunk dystopia (Bladerunner, for example) is that I don't think we were ever "promised" it. In one sense, if you're under 60 you weren't promised a future, you were threatened with one. That's why the present doesn't disturb us as much as it perhaps should.

Andrew Shields said...

True, not a promise but a threat. And since it's only gradually fulfilled, it takes a while to notice what's going on.